CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian court sentenced to death seven suspected members of Islamist militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis on Tuesday on charges related to attacks on the military in and around Cairo in March which killed nine soldiers, judicial sources said.
The ruling was the first death sentence handed down against members of the Sinai-based faction, which is considered the country’s deadliest jihadist group and has established contacts with Islamic State militants operating in Iraq and Syria.
“A military court sentenced seven civilian defendants to death on charges from the military prosecutor including planning and executing the attacks,” a defense lawyer said.
Ansar has staged attacks in Cairo and in the Sinai Peninsula, a lawless area bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip where the Egyptian army has been waging a campaign against it.
The group seeks to topple the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July 2013 following mass protests and then cracked down hard on his Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
Security officials say the militants are inspired by Islamic State, the al Qaeda offshoot now targeted by U.S.-led strikes in Iraq and Syria. A senior commander from Ansar has told Reuters that Islamic State has advised it on operating more effectively.
Ansar beheaded several people in August, the first incidence of such bloodshed in Egypt which suggested the group had become more radical.
Officials have also expressed concern about fighters crossing Egypt’s western border from Libya, where militant violence and factional chaos has increased this year.
The charges related to an attack on an army bus in Cairo on March 13, which killed one officer, and the shooting of six army officers near Cairo on March 15. They also stemmed from the killing of two soldiers during clashes on March 19 when the army tried to arrest the defendants near Cairo.
The judicial sources said two other suspected members of Ansar were sentenced to life in prison on charges related to the same incidents. All the sentences can be appealed.
The government has accused the Muslim Brotherhood of perpetrating the attacks.
Sisi’s government does not differentiate between radical Islamist groups based mainly in the Sinai and the Brotherhood, which maintains it is a peaceful organization and denied any connection with recent anti-state violence.
Thousands of Brotherhood supporters have been rounded up in Sisi’s crackdown and hundreds have since been sentenced to death. Liberal activists have also been suppressed, with many of the leading members of the 2011 popular uprising also facing trial for breaking a law that seeks to curb protests.
More than 500 people, mostly police and soldiers, have been killed across Egypt in Islamist militant attacks since last summer, according to government statistics.
Writing by Stephen Kalin, Editing by Angus MacSwan